“There's a lot of my literal fucking heart poured into this record.”
The alt-country prodigy Charlie Collins has delivered a deeply personal album after going through a divorce. But Undone feels liberatory, Collins veering into rhythmic '80s rock, contempo soul balladry, and slick power-pop – rivalling Taylor Swift. She's proclaiming it "a new chapter" – or book. Expect to sing along when Collins hits Splendour In The Grass.
Today the Sydney-based Collins is visiting family in Tamworth, New South Wales. The city's country music festival is underway for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic, but unusually she isn't performing. "I'm just hanging out," Collins begins. "I just wanted to see Mum and Dad and just kind of enjoy it. It's been so fun – a little too fun! I love it here so much." Unreserved, mirthful and sweary, Collins – looking fresh with wet hair in a crisp peasant blouse – chats on a glitchy Zoom connection from the lounge, having relegated her parents and pets to a porch area.
A year ago, Collins issued Fuck It – the lead single from Undone, her debut on Island Records. Meanwhile, she had some adventures. Collins travelled to Europe, chilling with Gang Of Youths (GOY) in London. "We've been friends since we were kids," she says. For frontman Dave Le'aupepe's 30th birthday in February, they stayed in a villa over in Florence, Italy. "I got to have a holiday, hang out with friends, play music, write music, eat so much food, drink so much wine… It was the dream. What more could you want?"
Collins was invited to support "Gangs" on their UK and Ireland tour – her inaugural international gigs – only to test positive for COVID. But, accompanying herself on guitar, she eventually fulfilled three dates, concluding at London's hallowed Brixton Academy – "a bucket list kind of dream." Collins laughs, "I never get nervous before shows, but I was shitting myself."
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Collins performed in childhood, forming the band Chasing Bailey with her older siblings. She subsequently co-led the Sydney indie combo Tigertown with husband Chris Collins. In 2019 the singer-songwriter launched a solo career with Snowpine, Chris producing. That album was instinctive. "It was more just me coming into myself," Collins ponders. "It was the first time I'd ever written songs on a guitar in a long, long time.
"I remember just sitting down when the band broke up – and I didn't even know what I wanted to do. I didn't know if I wanted to start another band… But, then, I just started writing all these songs and went to this house in Jindabyne and recorded it. And then I was like, 'Oh fuck, I've got an album.'"
Collins didn't set out to create a country LP in Snowpine – crossover or not. "I just write – and I never go in intentionally of how I wanna sound. I don't know if that's a good or bad thing, but it's just my thing. I let the songs kind of just do their thing. I just love guitars and I love live music – and I grew up with that since I was a kid. I like pushing the boundaries." She wasn't fussed about genre tags, either. "I honestly don't care about where people wanna pin me or label me." Nonetheless, the musician was "stoked" to be embraced by the country realm, as much as she welcomed enthusiasm from triple j indiedom. "To get an ARIA nom for 'Best Country Album' was just something I never even thought would happen, you know?"
Curiously, Collins "scrapped" an album prior to Undone – largely because she was processing her marital breakdown. "I finished the record and it was all done," Collins explains. "Then I kind of lived with it for a bit and, honestly, it was just I feel like I had so much more to say that I hadn't said – and I felt like I could pour myself out a little bit more. I had so much that I need to get out.
"I didn't wanna carry these emotions onto the next record. I wanted to just kind of get it all out in the one body of work… I guess, musically as well, I felt like I could push myself a little bit further in maybe other spaces that I haven't explored.
"So it was kind of a bit of everything. It was just that feeling when it's like, 'Ah, I feel like it's just not quite right.' I love it – but I just wanted to be more vulnerable and honest."
Undone is intensely confessional. In the raw intro, Lovers To Strangers, a raspy Collins sings of loss, anguish and insecurity over a lilting melody. "It was a pretty rough time, writing a lot of these songs," she affirms. "Lovers To Strangers in particular – I remember just sitting on my bed and bawling my eyes out, trying to finish this fucking song. I was like, 'I can't, I can't… Physically, I cannot do it. I can't even breathe properly.'
"Then there's songs like November that, again, I never thought would ever come out into the world – 'cause that was me. It was a song about my first wedding anniversary, divorced. I just sat at a piano and, again, started crying and wrote this song.
"So there's a lot of my literal fucking heart poured into this record. But it is a journey. It's going through the motions of heartbreak. It's what everyone feels. You go through that pain and the sadness and that feeling like the world is just gonna stop – and it sucks. But, then also, it's kind of slowly coming out of it and having that sense of hope."
Still, Undone is more than a 'divorce album' – Collins contemplating possibilities, even sonically. She liaised extensively with music industry veteran Scott Horscroft and former GOY guitarist Joji Malani as producers. Reconciliatory, Collins reached out to her ex, Chris, to helm the post-electro title-track – the vocals atypically modulated. Yet she also solicited intriguing new collaborators in Brisbane indie-soulster Jarryd James and Melbourne chillwaver Japanese Wallpaper, aka Gabriel Strum, rendering Undone communal and fluid.
Collins teamed with James, an old friend, for Hit The Lights – delicate acoustica. "He's got so much soul and I love his melodies and everything about what he does." Similarly organic, Collins had long spoken to Strum about collaborating, but it finally happened in Sydney when the polymath – who's previously worked with Holy Holy – had a studio cancellation. They cut two tracks – one the rock anthem Just My Luck. Collins deems Strum "a genius". "I love getting his sound into what I do," she says. "I think the beautiful thing, too, about me writing with people like that is it didn't change my sound, who I am, [but] it's like incorporating our worlds together and more bringing out parts of myself."
Crucially, Collins self-produced Undone's intimate cigarette-lighter ballads: November and the closer Couldn't Have Loved You Anymore. However, her favourite song is the avant-soul Skyline – a revelation with its jazzy keys and spacey atmospherics. "It was the first song I wrote for this record and it was when I came out of the band I was in and [was] just finding myself a lot," she shares. "For so long, I kind of felt like a puppet on a string. I felt like I was being told how I should sound like or, in a sense, what I should look like – and so it's just I wrote that song about that."
Mind, Collins hasn't abandoned country. She regularly listens to Johnny Cash, Hank Williams and Patsy Cline. "I'm such an old country record bitch," Collins quips. Additionally, Bruce Springsteen's heartland rock remains a touchstone.
In fact, the (self-)recriminatory Fuck It – hooky guitar-pop – archly flips outlaw country. "Not even kidding, you can even ask my mum, my first word was 'fuck'," Collins flexes. The singer penned the Swift-mode bop as a missive to the biz. She jokes, "I kind of wanted to come out with a bit of a bang."
But Collins "was going through a really shit time" – Fuck It a purge. "It's about when you hear stuff spoken about yourself and it's just about gossip and how damaging gossip can be – like someone else's pain shouldn't be your gossip – and the ramifications of how it affects the person on the other side.
"It's like, when you make a mistake, it's yours to own – it's nobody else's. So I just wanted to get that message out, 'cause there's so much gossip in our industry and it's really quite toxic and damaging. There was just a lot around that song that I really wanted to put out into the world."
Beyond that, Undone bears country elements in the instrumentation. "There's banjo buried in there and pedal steel – but pedal steel through, like, fucked up guitar pedals," Collins teases. Above all, she's into storytelling.
In later years country has undergone a revolution – Lil Nas X's 2018 mega-hit Old Town Road oddly the catalyst for discussions about traditionalism and cultural gatekeeping. The scene has become more inclusive, and dynamic, with newcomers Kacey Musgraves, Orville Peck and Mickey Guyton. Collins approves. "The fact that Splendour In The Grass has artists like Kacey Musgraves and Orville Peck and they have an Americana stage just shows that there's such a shift in the music industry and a change," she notes. "So I think it's just showing that there is a shift and people are starting to accept it and realising that country is fucking cool and great."
Collins credits ARIA Hall of Famer Kasey Chambers, her mentor, with spearheading that trend in Australia – the pair coincidentally duetting on 2021's standalone Honey Can We Run Away. "Last night, I saw Kasey Chambers play and she ended the set with Eminem – Lose Yourself," Collins raves. "She did the coolest version of it I've ever heard. I messaged her straight away. I was like, 'That was insane!' Then she just sent me a GIF of a rapper. She's like, 'This is who I am now.' But, yeah, it was cool hearing a country artist do an Eminem song. It was really fucking cool."
Regardless, Collins is uncertain where she (or Undone) belongs in a wider musical landscape. "It's just universal sounds – and I love that. So I don't really know where I am. But I love that kind of as well." The key is to always be "authentic". "I think people can also see when someone is trying to just dive into a genre to make it something."
Over winter, the star will join Splendour – bonding with a recent pal, Peck, whose Brisbane show she opened in early 2020. Collins laughingly recollects not recognising the mysterious cowboy crooner as he approached her backstage, unmasked. "He's been so encouraging. Ever since then, we still keep in touch. We'll write to each other. He made a playlist on Spotify and put me on that. He's so beautiful. He's such a beautiful person, too. So, to get to play with him, but also have him as a friend, is so great."
Collins is "excited" at the prospect of playing her new "rockier" numbers – like Undone's current single Backstreet Valentine – but apprehensive about pulling off Lovers… or November. "When you write a song, everything you're feeling, it's like, 'Oh, okay, I've got it out – I feel a lot better,'" she reflects. "But, then, you're just like, 'Oh, fuck, I forgot I've gotta tour this.' So it's almost like you've got to relive that trauma and pain a little bit every time you play it. I'm sure it gets easier – and it does get easier… But the first initial couple of shows is, like, 'Oh, shit, I forgot that these emotions come back.' So, hopefully, I don't break down on stage – but we'll see."
May 14 – Oxford Art Factory – Sydney
July 22 – 24 - Splendour In The Grass – Byron Bay